Mike Parr was one of the small group of conceptual artists that formed Inhibodress in Sydney in the early 1970s. It was a time when radical artists around the world were in contact with each other, sharing ideas and organising events, although the infrastructure was not yet in place for the incorporation of the avant-garde into the institutions of art. It was also a time when artists world-wide were politicised by Vietnam and the temperature of their work was often intense. Against this background Parr travelled to work in Europe, where he came to know many of the leading conceptualists along with members of Fluxus and the Vienna Aktionists group in Austria.
Although his work is incredibly diverse – performance and body art, drawing, printmaking, text-works, film, staged photography, minimal sculpture and figurative bronzes – the underlying structures remain the same. His self-portrait project is one that attempts to map the interactions of mind and body, the conscious and the unconscious. It is not a solipsistic search for the self but rather an attempt to explore the human condition and how the personal informs the political. The basis of all these forms is performative; since the inception of the genre in the 16th century, self-portraits have always been some kind of performance as the artist attempts to project his or her place in the world. Many self-portraits also seem to mutually interrogate the self and the viewer, and this is where the ‘body actions’ of the 1970s come in.
Parr’s large-scale drawings such as ‘The Trojan(ed) horse (self-portrait as a stage)’ show a binary but here it is not mind/body as such but left hemisphere/right hemisphere. The likeness is distorted by a process of anamorphism, where perspective is systematically altered as it was for the skull in Holbein’s 16th-century painting ‘The ambassadors’. This refers to a degree of skill and mastery of the unruly universe in the European scientific and artistic tradition. In these works Parr juxtaposes this controlled image with what appear to be out-of-control smearing and haptic gestures – reminding us that we are not the unified entity we may wish to believe we are. We need to be aware that many forces are pulling us this way and that otherwise we will have no measure of who or what we are.
Parr sometimes uses a feminine persona or bride, acknowledging the suppressed feminine within every male while drawing on the alchemical ideas of Marcel Duchamp. ‘Bronze liars (minus 1 to minus 16)’ 1996 (AGNSW collection) also gives us a multitude of Parr’s alter egos. Their deformed heads were created by groping blindly with the clay: Parr knows his face so well that he could make a clear likeness by feel but then he subjected the faces to brutal attacks, pushing them towards a quasi-cubist fragmentation of the body. Nonetheless, for Parr the bronze of the heads represents the cold, hard light of intellect while the beeswax bases have a Beuysian connotation of the warm and living body.
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
charcoal paste on photographic backdrop paper
274.0 x 732.0 cm overall
Not on display
© Mike Parr
Shown in 3 exhibitions
An Australian Accent:
- P.S.1, New York 15 Apr 1984–10 Jun 1984
- The Corcoran Gallery of Art, United States of America 20 Jun 1984–26 Aug 1984
- Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth 22 Sep 1984–11 Nov 1984
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 01 Dec 1984–31 Jan 1985
Five years on: a selection of acquisitions 1981-1986, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 26 Sep 1986–23 Nov 1986
40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 02 Oct 2009–14 Feb 2010
Referenced in 6 publications
Anthony Bond, 40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects, 'An Australian Odyssey: connecting to international contemporary art', pg.25-29, Sydney, 2009, 26, 152 (colour illus.).
Anthony Bond, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Imagining the body', pg.246-289, Sydney, 2006, 282 (colour illus.).
Anthony Bond and Victoria Lynn, AGNSW Collections, 'Contemporary Practice - Here, There, Everywhere ...', pg. 229-285, Sydney, 1994, 265 (colour illus.).
Vaughan Rees, Art-i-facts: Book Two, an exploration of ideas in drawing, Sydney, 1998, 7 (colour illus.).
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Five years on: a selection of acquisitions 1981-1986, Sydney, 1986. cat.no. 129
John Kaldor AM (Curator), An Australian Accent, 'Mike Parr', p33-45, Sydney, 1984, 38-39 (colour illus.). cat. no. 4